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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Tools of the Trade 1: Heavy Tiles

This is the first in a series of unknown length about making game prototypes.

Today's session: making heavy tiles of any size that look nice and hold up reasonably well for playtesting. If I can figure out how to add or link to pictures of this stuff, I'll link those later.

Disclaimer - these techniques would also apply if you are making a "test copy" of a published game, but I leave that long discussion about the legalities and the ethics of that to some other discussion. I have used this, for example, to make a partial copy of the first Carcassonne, specifically so I could add other tiles that I designed to the game as a home-made "expansion" and not have those tiles stand out from the regular tiles in the game.

This is my favorite for a set of hand-made tiles that feel great, look nice and can be done fairly inexpensively. I’ve used this for Isla Nova (100 hexagonal tiles about 2 inches across), for Metro 2 (60 tiles about 1.5 inches square) and for smaller pieces like those in Pizzza (the topping counters are diamond-shape about 0.5 inches by .375 inches.

Fronts. Print the tile images on regular 8.5 x 11 heavy card stock. If you can find card stock that’s 12 inches square and you can print that size, even better, but I’ve never even seen it advertised. Test the paper once printed to see if the image will hold up under use – rub it with your thumb or something.

If the print is frail at all, consider laminating your tile front before sticking it to the backing. This will make a tile that lasts a long time, but it’s more work. You can even get away with printing on other lighter stock or shiny paper if you’re going to laminate it. However, since you’ll be cutting these tiles out, make sure the laminate sticks to the image after the card stock is cut. There are peel-and-stick laminates for this as well

Backs. We have a chain store here called Dollar Tree. At most of them, you can get three square feet of linoleum flooring (three square tiles) for $1.00. Or you can get slightly more expensive stuff at a Home Depot or similar. This stuff is peel-and-stick – so it’s easy to slap your card stock fronts onto it, cut it out and be done!

For now, pattern doesn’t matter. If it’s too obvious, use a tile bag for drawing tiles out of. I choose tiles that are butcher block, dark wood or marble – stuff that has no discernible pattern once it’s cut into tiles.

Preparation. Print the fronts first. Then laminate if you’re going to. Remember that some laminates don’t stick to the printed image if the edges are cut, so check that out too. You can easily get an 8.5 x 11 sheet on one of your floor tiles, but depending on size of tile, you should be able to use quite a bit more of the floor tile efficiently. And once you’re using smaller areas of the floor tile, cut the front image (cut out some tiles) so it does fit on the tile space available.

Peel off the backing carefully and expose an edge (like ½ inch) of the floor tile. Place the tile front (image showing!) on the tile and arrange it so there is a little border of tile backing all the way around. I usually cut the image right down to its border, so later I’m cutting just floor tile, not image and floor tile. Now carefully peel the tile backing in a straight line away from your exposed edge, smoothing the image onto the sticky backing as you go. You don’t want air bubbles under the image.

Cutting. For decent prototypes, I just use a pair of heavy shears (scissors) and cut the tiles out carefully, long lines first, finishing up one at a time. It helps in your original tile image to have a little space between tiles, like a darker colored dark border. That way you can cut out each tile with a little wiggle room.

One level up in quality is to use a razor knife or similar to cut the tile edges on the fronts. You want to cut through the card stock, but you don’t have to cut through the whole floor tile unless you really like using up razor knife blades. I just cut through the fronts and finish the job with my trusty scissors. This way the scissors edge doesn’t bruise the edge of the image quite as often and looks a little cleaner, and the tile cuts quite easily since it's been "scored."

If you’re careful, you can use a razor knife for the whole job and print your tiles closer together so you can get multiple tiles’ edges cut on a single pass. But for me, it tends to save me pennies and often as not I miscut at least one line which ruins a bunch of tiles. Then I have to do a specific image re-print, just to re-make those few damaged tiles.

Notes. There are other home decor products that can also work as tile backs – like peel-and-stick wall fabric and peel-and-stick cork board. To be useful in this application, it has to be fairly heavy, inexpensive, cut easily and cleanly, not fall apart later (which most cork board will) and look good. But the “3 for a Dollar Floor Tile" will be hard to beat.

Next time – the wonderful world of printing on peel-and-stick full page label stock! This gives us some other lighter choices for tiles, still good looking and durable.

Bet you can hardly wait! =)


  • At 12:39 PM, Blogger jkwatson said…

    KC...something missing from this post? The actual content? :)

  • At 12:57 PM, Blogger KC said…

    Sorry, the whole thing didn't publish the first time. Hopefully it's all there now. - KC

  • At 1:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Picture matt, the stuff that is used to create coloured borders about pictures in frames, is available for about $4 a sheet at my local craft store. Sheets are roughly 2'6"x4' (I don't have one to hand to measure, so this is by guess memory). It is sturdy, of good thickness and cuts easily and cleanly. Resultant tiles are equivalent in quality and tactiles to Tikal/Carcassonne/Ra tiles. Printed sheets of whatever can be easily mounted to it with 3M Super-77 spray glue. Cut with a Fiskar rotary knife (looks like a pizza cutter) and a steel rule. The rotary knives are available from Walmart or good craft stores for about US$8. Steel rules typically run around US$6 - US$9 at Office Depot/Office Max/Staples etc.

    Using these materials and methods a full sheet of tiles can be made and cut in about 20 minutes.


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